On set, writer/director/actor Nate Hapke and writer/producer Rosie Grace are filming a romantic comedy. Off set, they’re living in one. The couple got engaged in the middle of filming their new feature film, Surprise!, the story of a surprise engagement gone wrong. Actually, between the cast and crew, four couples got engaged while creating the film. That earns the exclamation point!
Having first met as students at The Newhouse School at Syracuse University, the pair realized they were not only compatible romantically, but creatively. Hapke and Grace launched Small/TALL productions LLC in January 2020. Surprise! is Small/TALL’s second feature film following 2022’s Two Dash One One.
Film Obsessive was able to secure an interview with Nate Hapke and Rosie Grace. Here are a few highlights from our conversation with the couple and filmmakers. The full interview is linked in the video below.
Film Obsessive: How did you both get started in filmmaking and what led to your collaboration with small/TALL productions?
Nate Hapke: I studied television, radio and film at Newhouse. We both did. But my focus was in filmmaking, and specifically writing and directing. I made two short films: my pre-thesis and then my thesis film my senior year, and I just had a pension for that. I really wanted to make that my career, and I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. But it was figuring out how to really make that a viable thing, because no one was going to hire me right out of school to do that. So, when I moved to L.A., because obviously, there’s that forced dichotomy when you graduate, and you don’t have to do this, but everybody goes to New York or L.A., and I had chosen LA. I was able to get a job, which set me up for stability and longevity. And, outside of that, I made sure to prioritize writing, directing, producing any number of different roles and job titles, which I love so much, including two to three short films a year. I was just trying to keep the momentum going, trying to challenge myself every single time to get better and to improve, whether it be narratively or the type of gear that we were using.
Rosie Grace: I’m gonna cut in here, because this is where we start to intersect a little bit. Meanwhile, I was also active at the same time. We were both close to 2014. I was also at Syracuse entered as an English major had a quarter-life crisis and was like, “Oh, my God!” Everyone is asking me if I want to be either a librarian, or a teacher, and I want to write books, but that feels really lonely. What am I going to do? I ended up transferring into Newhouse. Then, Nate and I were sort of running in parallel circles. I guess the whole time, we were always on the edge of each other’s social circles. We had a group project together, but we’re never really friends or anything in college. Once that forced move happened, and we ended up in L.A. together, all of the people from our year got very close very quickly, because you know, you kind of form that second family. During that time, Nate was starting to make all of these projects. And I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” I remember we were all at some Syracuse party or something. I was like, at some point, we should talk about working together, where I mentioned offhand and totally said off the top of my head. Years later, we’re still in L.A., still chasing the dream, and both single at the same time. We ended up starting to realize, like, “Oh, my gosh.” You’ve been here this whole time and started dating. We basically said, if we still want to work together, we should probably get our relationship solid first. So we had a rule that we were going to date for a year before we were going to start making projects together. Towards the end of that first year of dating, it was like, “Okay, what are we going to make together?” And we’ve been making movies together ever since.
I feel like being married makes you guys very uniquely qualified to make a rom-com like Surprise!
Grace: Actually, it’s really funny. So, we’re engaged. We’re getting married in January, and we got engaged in the middle of filming Surprise! and there’s a lot of funny bits to this. The first of that, even though it wasn’t intentional, is we were writing this movie in January of last year when Nate was starting to think about proposing. We had sort of had the conversation. I was like, “I want to be surprised. I’m ready. When you’re ready, I’ll step back, hands off.” And meanwhile, we’re writing this script about a couple getting engaged, and all the different layers of pressure and stress around that. Well, unbeknownst to me, Nate has already started talking to my friends about rings and planning, and he’s going to talk to my parents and all of that. So the funny part is, even though it wasn’t intentional, those two sections of our life really did overlap with the work, which was really sweet. The other really fun part is what came out of this is a lot of people got engaged while making a movie about being engaged.
Hapke: We’re at this time in our lives where, societally, there’s this pressure if you’ve been dating for a period of time that you will get engaged. So, it was a really fun way for us to kind of process all those different pressures that we have, not necessarily felt, but we have borne witness to in our periphery. I love using writing as catharsis. It’s just a way of channeling all of that, and sort of processing the internal sort of thoughts about the external pressures about it and writing a really fun ensemble piece within that. So, we were able to bring a lot of truth to it in all the different characters, because there are so many different types of relationships in the movie.
Surprise! is a bit of a departure from drama that you both initially focused on, especially with your first feature film, Two Dash One One. Did you face any challenges with shifting genres, and what aspects of this new direction did you find rewarding or enlightening?
Grace: It’s a great question. It’s lucky, we have done a couple of short comedies that we really enjoyed the process of, and a lot of the time it ended up being okay. We did a really heavy piece about being a woman in Hollywood in the wake of the Weinstein scandals. Let’s offset that with a really cute rom-com inspired by how we got together. And what if we offset that where the next thing we make is going to be this relationship about a couple that’s breaking up and dividing their apartment? We’ve had this sort of pattern where we realized it’s such a creative refresh to switch– not necessarily the themes are the core of the stories you’re telling– but to shift the framework a little bit. It, kind of in my mind, definitely keeps us fresh and excited about what we’re doing, which I think is one of the best parts.
Hapke: There are inherent challenges in writing comedy, I think. We were asked a similar question to this recently and one of the things that I found so interesting, as the director and one of the writers of the project, is from a writing standpoint. Writing a comedy versus a drama brings its own set of challenges, because you kind of have to make the jokes land. They have to be contextualized. You know, what style of comedy do you want to do? Is it gonna be screwball comedy? Is it gonna be more circumstantial comedy? That one is sort of our preference. Once you land on that, it’s like, alright, so that’s kind of the rules that you’re applying. But, there’s the inherent challenges to sort of make it funny and how do you make it funny. You make it funny by bringing truth to it.
Did you have any inspirations that you looked to specifically for the comedy, any styles within the rom-com genre or elsewhere?
Grace: I love romantic comedies. I love to read them. I love to watch them. Any form you want to give me a love story, I’m here for it. I was laughing because Surprise! was such a great project for us because it was an excuse to just watch rom-coms every night. In wanting to sort of get a sense of how people are talking about and examining marriage and things, we did look at a lot of rom-coms about weddings. I will say, I’m not sure if you’ve seen Plus One with my Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid. If not, add it to your list. It is it has become one of my favorite movies. That was a big one, just in terms of how they balanced the serious in the comedy. The movie has you laughing out loud, but there’s also a lot of heart to it. And we wanted to capture that.
Hapke: There’s a scene early on in Plus One where you’re at a wedding and you’re at the reception, and you’re heading towards the dance floor. And so you go from one character sitting at one of the tables, and that character crossing to the dance floor motivates the camera to almost be a guest at the wedding and move to the dance floor. All of a sudden, that character starts dancing with another character, but then they’re having a good time. The camera, you know, rotates around and just sort of feels like you’re in this really nice, lovely moment. Specifically for this project [Surprise!], it’s this ensemble comedy. There’s so many different simultaneous conversations that are happening at this party. It’s a birthday party. And so how do you that? I wanted the camera a lot of time to feel like a guest at the party. And so to figure out how I could motivate movement throughout the party scene and convey the sense that this is an active party. It was starting on three characters: one character is eating some chips, which is a recurring joke in the movie, and somebody who is like, kind of into it on their right, and then on their left is somebody who’s like completely disgusted by it, that person crosses off and that motivates the camera to pan across.
What do you hope audiences take away from Surprise!?
Grace: On a base level, I hope a really good time. We wanted to make something that was really enjoyable to watch that picks you up, carries you along, and lets you fall in love with these characters, as they continue to fall in love with each other. But also, I think, going back to sort of what Nate said, just a reminder— talk to people. It’s a confusing world we live in. Dating is never easy. Marriage? I’m can’t speak from experience yet, but it’s never easy. You know, none of these things are easy. The thing that we can do to make it at least a little bit easier on ourselves is just to talk to our partners. So, I think the thing that I love about this movie is pretty much everyone in their, their storylines start to resolve when they start to talk about what they need.
Hapke: We wanted to make a nice movie with our friends. It’s warm. It’s welcoming. All of our characters are real people. There’s truth for all of them. Their relationships are fully realized, which is a huge priority of ours. We didn’t just want— even if one character just had sort of a shtick. We wanted to understand where that shtick was coming from it, like “Oh, it’s because he’s uncomfortable in a party setting.” So, he’s just going to make this joke or he’s going to make this sort of comments because he’s trying to endear himself to people that he’s never met before. It’s like “Oh, so that makes sense,” as to why he’s doing that. The audience gets to see that what he’s doing is is very funny, and, because it is kind of like a recurring joke that way, we understand why he’s doing it.
Where can people watch Surprise! And find your other work?
Grace: Surprise! is currently about to kick off its festival journey. It’s going to be screening October 1st in the North Hollywood CineFest. That will hopefully kick off its festival run. We’re waiting to hear back from a lot of festivals still. Once that is finished, then we’ll be able to go about pursuing sales and distribution for the movie, at which point we’ll be able to get it on a platform. At the moment, it’s kind of just keeping an eye on our social media to see where it’s going to be playing as we start to take it out to the world. Hopefully by this time next year, we’ll have a better idea of where it’s going to be living from then on. Luckily, our last feature to Two Dash One One has already done that whole gamut and now is available on pretty much any platform… Our short films, for the most part, there are links to pretty much all of them on Nate’s website and Vimeo.